Children in Northern Ireland caught in the middle of “poorly managed, high conflict” family court battles are at risk of long-term trauma — with the process costing the public nearly £9m in legal aid a year, a charity has warned.
The issue is being highlighted at an event in Stormont today to encourage separating parents to try family mediation instead of enduring stressful courtroom battles.
The charity Family Mediation NI (FMNI) has said that the lengthy waits and acrimony involved in courtroom disputes often increase stress and anxiety for children.
This can have long-term impacts, affecting educational performance, life opportunities and even causing self-harm.
According to court figures, an average of 5,500 children in Northern Ireland are subject to contact and residency orders every year.
This comes with a price tag for the taxpayer of £8.9m in legal aid.
Meanwhile, £225,000 is spent on family mediation each year with FMNI through a contract with the Health and Social Care Board.
Per family, mediation is said to cost an estimated £800 compared to £1,500 for using legal aid. A different discipline than counselling, mediation offers an impartial and independent service to families.
FMNI director Joan Davis said the charity helps 300 families a year and called on the Executive to do more to keep child contact issues out of the courts where appropriate.
“Greater access to mediation has the potential to reduce the public spend on contact applications but, more importantly, we owe it to children to approach conflictual family breakdown differently, to reduce the level of anxiety for all involved and the mental health impacts leading to self-harm and the increased referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services,” she said.
Ms Davis said that 85% of those families that engaged with the mediation process voluntarily had reached a full mediated agreement or a co-parenting plan.
In addition, a further 90% recommended the service to others.
“We are calling on the NI Executive for a multi-departmental approach for the implementation of the ‘One Stop Shop’ model of family support to divert separated families from the court system.”
Also speaking at today’s event will be the former Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Gillen, and Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill.
Sir John highlighted some of the recommendations from his 2017 review of civil and family justice.
“Until we face the fact that child inclusive mediation is a key component of conflict resolution in family justice outside the court arena and are prepared to properly finance that concept without further delay, nothing will change the current profound failings in our management of the interests of children in the course of family breakdown,” he said.
Professor O’Neill added that the service is more important than ever due to an anticipated increase in relationship break ups after the pandemic.
“Parental separation, if managed poorly, can be experienced as a loss, and result in feelings of blame and guilt,” she said.
“This can have a lasting impact on children’s mental health and well-being. In contrast, a well-managed separation benefits all parties, it enhances children’s problem solving and conflict resolution skills and improves their ability to navigate their own relationships.”
The campaign is supported by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland which recognises that poorly managed parental separation and alienation from one parent is in the top 10 of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) that can cause many life challenges if not addressed correctly.
In 2018/19 there was an annual spend of £8,912,105 on private law Children Order cases (legal aid), up from £8,613,810 the previous year.
A total of £220,000 was spent on FMNI services by the Health and Social Care Board, providing funded sessions to a limited number of families assessed as mediation-ready.
The pandemic has seen a backlog in family court hearings, with the second quarter of 2021 seeing 1,827 final orders — up from 943 final orders in the same period last year.
FMNI has said there is an average 33-week wait for family court hearings.
It is also expected that the limited operation of family courts during the pandemic will continue to have an impact on future figures.
This year, FMNI delivered 538 individual information and assessment meetings and provided 1,328 sessions to separated parents and their children.